When I started to listen to classical music a couple of months ago, I thought that it would take me ages to even tell the differences between different recordings of a same piece. I thought that it would be the piece of music, not the recorded version, that really mattered.
I think I was wrong.
Immediately when hearing different versions of the same musical pieces, I was not only able to tell the difference: the version was what made or broke the piece for me. The same musical piece could sound divine or completely flat, not leaving any impression on me., depending on the recording.
This prompted me to think up the topic title: "there is no good music, only good performances". What I mean here with "music" is the notes on the paper - the "recipe" of the piece. And "performance" means the actual act when the piece is played, whether by instruments, a CD player or even a computer program that simulates the sounds. To continue the culinary analogy, the actual hot food on a plate before you.
Granted, it's an exaggeration and a half-truth of sorts, deliberately made so to provoke discussion. But I really think that it's the performance that makes or breaks a piece. It's certain that a lousy performance can totally trash the best of compositions. But can a superb performance salvage a lesser composition? Perhaps, to some extent, especially if the performers/conductor dare(s) to add some touches of their/his own. But even then - if the best performance on Earth cannot raise a lousy composition to seventh heaven, so to speak - I do think that it ultimately comes to to the performance. At the very least, I think that we should acknowledge that the performance is a major ingredient in music. It's NOT all about the composition.
How many threads in this forum describe how a person wasn't interested in a particular piece of music until he heard a specific performance? Quite many, I think. This again shows the power of the performance. It can lead you to a composer or a piece you have neglected. It can open your mind to the actual music, the actual composition, the Platonic "idea" of the piece - a piece whose "idea" you couldn't get or wasn't interested in until the "reality", the "incarnation" of the piece was strong enough.
But even in the culinary analogy of recipes and actual food, some recipes are more highly regarded than others. A master chef can probably make some wonderful fish & chips, but it cannot compare to the smoked wild salmon made by him or some other master chef. I wholeheartedly agree: when given superior performances (not only in technical ability but especially the ability to interpret the music in a meaningful way), some pieces most certainly seem to outshine others. And then, but only then, there is "good music", in theoretical sense.
Perhaps what I'm saying is that "reality", i.e. the performance, that affects our senses, is the gateway that takes us to the "idea", the actual music. We cannot appreciate the "idea" until the "reality" is strong enough. Or, heck, at least I cannot. And in a way, if you are able to imagine the great qualities of a particular piece of music that you just heard played quite badly ("imagine what this would sound like if..."), you might be unable to communicate these ideas to your friends who cannot tap straight into your head. When we're discussing art that we have witnessed, we have to have the common ground in the actual performance. You really cannot blame someone for not seeing the greatness in some genoius composition if he's only heard a single, very spiritlessly played performance.
Another way to think is that there is no "idea", there is only "reality". There is a school of thought in film theory that I highly endorse called formalism. It means that we should search the meanings and true value of a film in the reality of the film itself, the "form" of the film (how is it shot, composed, lighted, acted, set etc) , as opposed to the "idea" of the film (the ideas and meanings of the film not inherent its form). According to this school of thought, a film about the most banal subject on Earth, that is exceedingly well made, is more interesting than a film about a very complex and interesting subject, but that is made with banal means, and I very much agree. It makes sense to me to apply this thinking to other arts as well, and as I wrote, my experiences with classical music point to a similar direction.
There's one more thing I'd like to talk about: the performance, according to my definition in the beginning of this post, takes into account ALL possible things that affect the soundwaves before they reach our ears. Thus, to experience a good live performance, you need good musicians, good conductor, AND good acoustics in the hall, good seat position and some luck in that no one drops a violin or anything like that. To experience a good non-live performance, you need a good recording, AND a good stereo system, good room acoustics, an appropriate level of volume, and who knows what else. These are all part of the "performance", or rather, the act of hearing and experiencing. At least I'm certain that I couldn't appreciate a good composition when heard from lousy speakers, recorded badly, or played too silently (or too loud for that matter). Or even, when I'm hungry or in a bad mood!